Favorite Horror Films: 7: The Wolfman

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“Even a man who is pure at heart
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.” (The Wolfman)

This is the well-known saying that is at the heart of the 1941 Universal Studios film The Wolfman. This film completes the quartet of monsters that are at the heart of the Universal horror franchise: the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, The Mummy, and the Wolfman. While there were certainly other creatures and monsters in the films in this time period, these are the four most prominent.

While we see science run out of control and ancient evils in the other films, in The Wolfman, we view a story of tragedy that is focused on an ordinary man, Larry Talbot, who is swept up in unfortunate events beyond his control. Because he is bitten by a werewolf while trying to save a girl and lives, Larry Talbot is fated to become such a beast himself.

The director and producer was George Waggner, and the writer was Kurt Siodmak. Most of our contemporary views about werewolf behavior do not come from ancient traditions or medieval European beliefs but from the mythology that Siodmak created for this movie. Siodmak created the idea that the time of the full moon is when a werewolf takes it form and that to become one, a person must be bitten by a werewolf and survive.

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More importantly, he included elements of classical tragedy, of a man fated to murder and to be destroyed, despite his desire to be a good person. The incantation the gypsy woman Maleva intones over Larry Talbot after his death illustrates this theme:

“The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Now you will have peace for eternity.” (The Wolfman)

Siodmak also addressed contemporary issues, specifically the idea of a star marking the next victim of a werewolf, much like a star marking the Jewish people of Europe by the Nazis. Siodmak was a German Jew who had been successful as a writer but had to flee Germany with the take over by the Nazis. While the reference is not direct, it is still a clear metaphor for the horrors of the Nazis. The film demonstrates that evil is both natural and human created.

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In addition to excellent writing, the cast was also of the very best. Along side the star Lon Chaney Jr. were Clause Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Evelyn Ankers. Jack Pierce, as in the other main Universal horror films, created the unforgettable makeup that is the foundation for all other filmic and literary werewolves.

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It was a film that was excellent in every level of production, and it maintains its excellence today.

Favorite Horror Films: 6: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1886 , which gave the world the epitome of the double, one of the central characteristics of the Gothic genre, this 1932 film is one of the best horror films of that decade or any other time. Robert Mamoulian directed and Adolph Zukor produced the film for Paramount.  Fredric March played Jekyll and Hyde and won the 1932 Oscar® for Best Actor. The film was expensive, coming in at approximately one half million dollars to make, and it was also a financial as well as critical success, making about one and one quarter million dollars–a huge amount of money in those days.

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The film is an excellent adaptation of the novella, something I rarely say about any film.  I love films almost as much as I do books, but almost any adaptation of a film is inferior to the book. The novel has the ability to speak directly to the reader, and the reader’s mind creates images that go much further and deeper than the particular aspect of a director’s vision, at least usually.  Stevenson’s novella is oddly short and would have benefited from begin developed in much more depth.  I can speak to that in another post in the future.  This film develops much of what is only hinted at in the Victorian era novella and is one of the few examples of when a film is superior to the book on which it is based.

The book hints at being a metaphor for drug addiction and the concurrent behavior of addicts, when their worst selves emerge. This film, in a manner that is overt for the early 1930s, visually makes these suggestions.  When Jekyll transforms for the first time, Mamoulian uses Jekyll’s POV (point of view) and shows us the images whirling through his mind.  Rather than eliminating his negative and evil impulses, he manages to bring them out to the front, and Mr. Hyde indulges his desires.

The book and the film also speak to the issue of the misuse of science and the unguarded pursuit of knowledge. This hubris, always punished by the gods in Greek Drama, was seen earlier in Frankenstein, and it is an issue that will continue to haunt us not only in contemporary films such as Jurassic Park but also in the very real world of scientific research.  Atomic weapons immediately come to mind as an example of how science can produce terrible as well as wonderful ends.  This film, in Gothic fashion, speaks to the problems of scientific hubris, uncontrolled by ethics.

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Fredric March was one of the great leading men of the time. He had a long and extraordinary career, including winning the Best Actor Oscar® two times.  Arguably, his performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was his best work of his career.

If you have never had the opportunity to watch this film, I recommend it highly.

Favorite Horror Films: 5: The Bride of Frankenstein

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The next installment in this series is what I consider to be one of the very best horror films ever made: The Bride of Frankenstein.

I also want to mention that I have taught  this novel, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus several times at both Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA and the Department of Graduate and Continuing Education at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA.

It is also interesting that the sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) to Universal Studio’s Frankenstein  (1931) is a far better film and more faithful adaptation to Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic novel than was the original movie. James Whale directed and Carl Laemmle Jr. produced this film.

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The movie opens with a sequence in which Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley appear, which is a nod to the summer of 1816 in which the three writers shared time together and decided to writer ghost stories.  Mary Shelley’s contribution was a short story about a young doctor who reanimated a corpse, and which she later expanded into the famous and deeply important novel. In this scene, Mary explains  that the story did not end, as shown in the first movie, with the death of the creature in the burning windmill.

Whale imbues this film with both highly religious symbolism, as when the creature is captured and tied to what looks like a crucifix and to references to important sections from the book.  The creature famously finds a friend in the blind man, who is able to befriend the creature because he cannot see his deformities.  This is a clear reference to stereotyping and bigotry.

In the novel, the Creature demands that Frankenstein create a mate for him, so that his loneliness can be alleviated. In this film, Elsa Lancaster, who also plays Mary Shelley in  the opening scene, plays the bride.  But as would be expected, it does not go well when she rejects the Creature’s advances, and he says the powerful line, “We belong dead.”

As with Frankenstein, there is a heavy influence of German Expressionism in the cinematography.

Jack Pierce again did the famous makeups, and Boris Karloff starred again as the Creature.

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This movie was successful financially and critically. It is, in my opinion, a cinematic masterpiece!

If any of you have interest either in horror or cinema, this is a film that you should see.

Favorite Horror Films: 4: Dracula

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When I first considered doing an examination of my favorite horror movies, I thought that going decade by decade would be sufficient, but I realized that some periods have far more excellent films than others.  A simple examination of 2-4 movies from the 1930s will not work, so I am going to look at one film at a time for that decade. I will begin with Dracula, a film I love, and which I have taught in college classes such as Literature and Film and Gothic and Horror at both Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA and Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA.  I also hold the novel to be an excellent and very important book.

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Dracula, made in 1931, and released for Valentine’s Day–a nice touch–was a huge success and established Bela Lugosi as a top box office star. This production was itself based on the very successful theatrical play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and James Balderston. Stoker’s novel did not see great success during his life, but after his death and the success of the play, it became one of the best selling novels of the 20th Century–worldwide.

Carl Laemmle Jr, capitalized on the story’s growing popularity and produced the movie.  Tod Browning, who had directed Lon Chaney Sr. in several movies, directed this piece. This film is highly atmospheric with a Gothic set and influenced by German Expressionism. Lugosi was brilliant with his authentic Hungarian accent and menacing presence. His performance and voice set the standard for the image of Dracula and vampires for decades to come. Dracula was a sensation and terrified people; today’s audience would probably find it slow and not at all frightening, but that reflects our jaded views that have been glutted with gore as the staple ingredient of contemporary horror.  This film depended on story telling, atmosphere, and acting. The film’s success created an era of classic horror films through the 1930s and part of the 1940s with Universal studios leading the way.

Additionally, Dracula is generally accepted by most film critics as one of the best horror films made.  I certainly consider it to be one of the best and most important.

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It is an interesting and little known detail of film history that in addition to the English language version, Universal also made a Spanish language film at the same time.  The  two films shared the same sets, and the same basic scripts, but with different actors and a different director: George Melford directed, and Carlos Villarías stared as Dracula.  While not as well known, an argument can be made that this is a better film than the more established English language version.  If you ever have the opportunity to see it, I recommend that you do.

Favorite Horror Films: 3: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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In this post, I will continue my series on favorite horror films, now focusing specifically on movies of the 1920s.

Another  brilliant horror movie of the 1920s is Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — The German title is Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari — (1920). The plot of the film centers on a mad scientist, Dr. Caligari, a hypnotist, played by Werner Krauss, who exploits a sleepwalker, Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt, to commit murder. It is one of the earliest horror movies and ushers in a decade of greatness in film-making, especially in German cinema.

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The true power of the film is in its cinematic style, that of German Expressionism, which is based on the artistic movement of the same name. German Expressionism uses sharp angles, deep shadows, heavy use of darks and lights, and distorted forms to explore the psychological impact of visual images. In this art, the world is often not as it seems to be, and the artists explore distortions that lurk under the surface of apparent normalcy. What is perceived is often deeply disturbing and challenging.

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“The Prophet” Woodcut by Emil Nolde: 1912

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Weine employs these revolutionary cinematic techniques to disorient, frighten, and interrogate the audience. Cesare is a common man, forced by an arrogant authority to become a murderer, which is clearly a commentary on the dark forces at play in Europe in the early parts of the 20th Century, some suggested by contemporary writers. As Weine suggests, the mass of people in Europe would, in the coming decades, be manipulated into creating the horror of Nazism and the Holocaust. I am not claiming that Weine somehow could see into the future, but that he perceived the traumas occurring in Europe, and those distortions appear in his film. Like Weine, other writers, such as Franz Kafka, also saw such coming disturbances.

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While only some of Franz Kafka’s brilliant and disturbing literary works had been published at this point–“Metamorphosis” (1915)– is the best example, Kafka’s treatment of the darkness and alienation in society could be an influence on this movie. While it is not certain, I believe it is the case. Regardless of if this is true or not, Weine creates a deeply disturbing movie, one that maintains its power to this day, one that I recommend for all lovers of film.

Favorite Horror Films: 2–The Phantom Of The Opera

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The Phantom of the Opera (1925) starring Lon Chaney Sr. is based on Gaston Leroux’s novel and was a huge success. This movie was a Universal Pictures production and was directed by Rupert Julian, although some film historian offer the possibility that Chaney himself was an uncredited director also.

Chaney played the deformed writer who falls in love with a singer and who becomes her kidnapper. This tale of horror and love has been redone numerous times, including the well known stage musical, but none of those productions have reached the sterling height of this extraordinary film.  If you are a fan of any of the more recent productions, you certainly should take the time to view this extraordinary movie. It is a piece of cinema history.

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As with the Hunchback, Chaney created this makeup, and his performance is sublime.  The unmasking sequence, in which the imprisoned singer’s curiosity overtakes her, and she removes the mask covering the Phantom’s face, remains a moment of terror and excellent acting.

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In my opinion, The Phantom Of The Opera Again, is not only an excellent horror film, but also it ranks as one of the best and most important works in American cinematic history. If you have not seen this film,  I recommend it highly.

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Favorite Horror Films: Part One–The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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October is one of my favorite months of the year for several reasons: it is the true beginning of Autumn weather, my birthday is this month, and so is my favorite holiday–Halloween! 

This month, I will do two series that fit well with the spirit of Halloween: favorite Horror movies and favorite Horror novels! I will begin with horror films.

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I have been a fan of horror movies since I was a child. I grew up watching Universal movies from the 1930s and 1940s being shown on various themed TV shows with horror hosts. As an adult, my love for these films has not waned; in fact, it has grown and helped to feed my scholarly interest in film. I use these films in some of the classes I teach in college.

Several films, in particular, stand out to me from the 1920s.  Two starred Lon Chaney Sr., the Man of a Thousand Faces, and were made by Universal Studios.

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The first film is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, (1923) based on the Victor Hugo novel, and it is an extraordinary piece of cinema that stands up today. It was a very expensive production at the time.  Estimates range in the $1,250,000 to $1,500,000 range.  Given the year, that is a huge sum of money.

The movie accurately reflects Hugo’s examination of the capacity of human beings to be intensely cruel to each other and of the abuse of power by those in positions of authority.  This film is a critique of the misuse of power by those in authority, the capacity of humanity to be cruel, and of unquestioning acceptance of the order of the day. It is a piece of art whose message still resonates today, nearly one hundred years after it was made.

Wallace Worsley directed the film, and Lon Chaney Sr. gave a magnificent performance as Quasimodo.  It is also important to remember that Mr. Chaney created all of his own makeups.  If all you know of this story is the Disney version, you need to see this production.  I would consider it one of the best and most important films ever made.

The second film with Lon Chaney Sr. is The Phantom Of The Opera, and I will cover that movie in another post.

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Kubrick’s Monolith: The Art and Mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Joe R. Frinzi: A Review

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I am pleased to be able to offer a review of this extraordinary book by film scholar Mr. Joe R. Frinzi.

Joe R. Frinzi’s work, Kubrick’s Monolith: The Art and Mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is an excellent book of film criticism, and it should establish Mr. Frinzi as a top level scholar on Stanley Kubrick and his seminal film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this masterful treatment, Mr. Frinzi details the creation of the film and the social and cinematic importance of this work by the auteur, Stanley Kubrick. It is deeply researched, demonstrates a masterful understanding of cinema, and confirms Mr. Frinzi as a top film scholar.

If you are interested in film, if you love science-fiction, and if you appreciate Stanley Kubrick, then this is a book you must have.

Mr. Frinzi’s work is on the level of a Ph.D. thesis.

I recommend this book to all lovers of cinema, and I give it 5 stars!

Mr. Frinzi’s book is available here: Amazon

and here: McFarland

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Favorite Holiday Movies: Part Three: The Man Who Invented Christmas

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I have several Christmas movies that carry great meaning to me and that I have loved over many years. I have written about them before in this blog, and I will continue to do so. Now, however, I want to make a new entry into my list of favorite Christmas movies.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is an extraordinary film that was released two years ago. It is a wonderful movie  that explores the creative process of Charles Dickens as he wrote the classic novel, A Christmas Carol. The director is Bharat Nalluri, and this work is marvelous! We get a direct entrance into Dickens’ mind as he struggles with his writing. His characters appear and talk to him, which is an excellent touch.

The film is based on the book by Les Standiford, and the stars are Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, and Jonathan Pryce. The entire cast, without exception, give extraordinary performances. Christopher Plummer as Scrooge is especially brilliant. Dan Stevens should be recognized as one of the finest actors today.

This film delivers the message of Dickens’ masterpiece, that humanity should be the business of everyone, that money should not be the focus of our lives, and that we should all try to help each other. It will capture your heart and soul, and it is a film I recommend completely! On a system of 5 stars, I give it five!

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Please, do yourself a favor, and watch this movie!

Favorite Holiday Movies: Part Two

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There are so many aspects of this holiday season that are wonderful to me: getting together with loved ones, friends and family alike (although this year on a very limited basis); the spirit of giving that I hope continues to grow; celebrations; the holiday music; and the memories of happy times.  Among the favorite memories I have are a few specific Christmas movies.

The movie I will talk about today is Scrooge with Albert Finney as the star; he does a magnificent job in his performance as the miserly and misanthropic loan-shark. This musical version of A Christmas Carol is one of the finest filmic adaptations of the classic Christmas Eve ghost story and morality tale.  This film follows  the story closely with Scrooge being visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, of Christmas Present, and of Christmas Future. Among the movies best songs are Scrooge singing “I Hate People” which clearly shows his despicable and greedy nature,  “Thank You Very Much” in which a tap dance is done on Scrooge’s coffin in the future, and “I Like Life” in which the ghost of Christmas Present teaches Scrooge about experiencing life as well as having empathy for others.

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This movie does an excellent job of showing Dickens’ critique of a greed based society and one that did little or nothing to help alleviate the enormous difficulties of the poor.  When first confronted by the ghost of his dead partner Marley, Scrooge tells him that he was always a good man of business.  Marley’s ghost responds, “Mankind should be our business.”  This is a sentiment that stands today.  We should be putting the good of humanity above the pursuit of greed.

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I was a teenager when this movie was first released in 1970, and I loved seeing it with two of my closest friends.  We were captivated by the music and the story, and it remains as powerful to me as when I first saw it. If you have never had the opportunity to see this particular film, I give it my highest recommendation.

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I also remind all of us, in paraphrasing the Master Charles Dickens, that we must always remember to make the good of others our business.